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Nabokov's interview. (12) The Sunday Times [1969]

In early June, 1969, Philip Oakes sent me a series o)f questions on behalf of The Sunday Times, London. I happened to be greatly annoyed by the editorial liberties that periodicals in other countries had been taking with material I had supplied. When he arrived on June 15, I gave him my written answers accompanied by the following note. When preparing interviews I invariably write out my replies (and sometimes additional questions) taking great care to make them as concise as possible. My replies represent unpublished material, should be printed verbatim and in toto, and copyrighted in my name. Answers may be rearranged in whatever order the interviewer car the editor wishes: for example, they may be split, with insertion of the questioner's comments or bits of descriptive matter (but none of the latter material may be ascribed to me). Unprepared remarks, quips, etc., may come from me during the actual colloquy but may nut be published without my approval. The article will be shown to me before publication so as to avoid factual errors {e.g., in names, dates, etc.). Mr. Oakes' article appeared in The Sunday Times on June 22, 1969. As a distinguished entomologist and novelist do you find that your two main preoccupations condition, restrict, or refine your view of the world? What world? Whose world? If we mean the average world of the average newspaper reader in Liverpool, Livorno, or Vilno, then we are dealing in trivial generalities. If, on the other hand, an artist invents his own world, as I think I do, then how can he be said to influence his own understanding of what he has created himself? As soon as we start defining such terms as "the writer," "the world," "the novel," and so on, we slip into a solipsismal abyss where general ideas dissolve. As to butterflies-- well, my taxonomic papers on lepidoptera were published mainly in the nineteen forties, and can be of interest to only a few specialists in certain groups of American butterflies. In itself, an aurelian's passion is not a particularly unusual sickness; but it stands outside the limits of a novelist's world, and I can prove this by the fact that whenever I allude to butterflies in my novels, no matter how diligently I rework the stuff, it remains pale and false and does not really express what I want it to express-- what, indeed, it can only express in the special scientific terms of my entomological papers. The butterfly that lives forever on its type-labeled pin and in its O. D. ("original description") in a scientific journal dies a messy death in the fumes of the arty gush. However-- not to let your question go completely unanswered-- 1 must admit that in one sense the entomological satellite does impinge upon my novelistic globe. This is when certain place-names are mentioned. Thus if I hear or read the words "Alp Grum, Engadine" the normal observer within me may force me to imagine the belvedere of a tiny hotel on its 2000-meter-tall perch and mowers working along a path that winds down to a toy railway; but what I see first of all and above all is the Yellow-banded Ringlet settled with folded wings on the flower that those damned scythes are about to behead. What was the most amusing item you recently found in the papers? That bit about Mr. E. Pound, a venerable fraud, making a "sentimental visit" to his aima mater in Clinton, New York, and being given a standing ovation by the commencement audience-- consisting, apparently, of morons and madmen. Have you seen the cinema version of your Laughter in the Dark? I have. Nicol Williamson is, of course, an admirable actor, and some of the sequences are very good. The scene with the water-ski girl, gulping and giggling, is exceptionally successful. But I was appalled by the commonplace quality of the sexual passages. I would like to say something about that. Clichés and conventions breed remarkably fast. They occur as readily in the primitive jollities of the jungle as in the civilized obligatory scenes of our theater. In former times Greek masks must have set many a Greek dentition on edge. In recent films, including Laughter in the Dark, the porno grapple has already become a cliché though the device is but half-a-dozen years old. I would have been sorry that Tony Richardson should have followed that trite trend, had it not given me the opportunity to form and formulate the following important notion: theatrical acting, in the course of the last centuries, has led to incredible refinements of stylized pantomine in the representation of, say, a person eating, or getting deliciously drunk, or looking for his spectacles, or making a proposal of marriage. Not so in regard to the imitation of the sexual act which on the stage has absolutely no tradition behind it. The Swedes and we have to start from scratch and what I have witnessed up to now on the screen-- the blotchy male shoulder, the false howls of bliss, the four or five mingled feet-- all of it is primitive, commonplace, conventional, and therefore disgusting. The lack of art and style in these paltry copulations is particularly brought into evidence by their clashing with the marvelously high level of acting in virtually all other imitations of natural gestures on our stage and screen. This is an attractive topic to ponder further, and directors should take notice of it. When you are writing your novels, you have a remarkable sense of history and period, although the situations in which your characters are m'uol"üed reflect perennial dilemmas. Do you feel that any given time creates special problems which interest you as a writer? We should define, should we not, what we mean by "history." If "history" means a "written account of events" (and that is about all Clio can claim), then let us inquire who actually-- what scribes, what secretaries-- took it down and how qualified they were for the job. I am inclined to guess that a big part of "history" (the unnatural history of man-- not the naive testimony of rocks) has been modified by mediocre writers and prejudiced observers. We know that police states (e.g., the Soviets) have actually snipped out and destroyed such past events in old books as did not conform to the falsehoods of the present. But even the most talented and conscientious historian may err. In other words, I do not believe that "history" exists apart from the historian. If I try to select a keeper of records, I think it safer (for my comfort, at least) to choose my own self. But nothing recorded or thought up by myself can create any special "problems" in the sense you suggest. You say somewhere that, artistically speaking, you prefer Lolita to all your other books. Has y our new novel Ada superseded Lolita in your affection? Not really. It is true that Ada caused me more trouble than all my other novels and perhaps that bright fringe of overlapping worry is synonymous with the crest of love. Incidentally, speaking of my first nymphet, let me take this neat opportunity to correct a curious misconception profferred by an anonymous owl in a London weekly a couple of months ago. "Lolita" should not be pronounced in the English or Russian fashion (as he thinks it should), but with a trill of Latin "l"s and a delicate toothy "t." Do you feel isolated as a writer? Most of the writers I have met were Russian emigres in the nineteen twenties and thirties. With American novelists I have had virtually no contact. In England, I had lunch once with Graham Greene. I have dined with Joyce and have had tea with Robbe-Grillet. Isolation means liberty and discovery. A desert island may be more exciting than a city, but my loneliness, on the whole, has little significance. It is a consequence of chance circumstance-- old shipwrecks, freakish tides-- and not a matter of temperament. As a private person I am good-natured, warm, cheerful, straightforward, plainspoken, and intolerant of bogus art. I do not mind my own writings being criticized or ignored and therefore think it funny that people not even concerned with literature should be upset by my finding D. H. Lawrence execrable or my seeing in H. G. Wells a far greater artist than Conrad. What do you think of the so-called "student revolution "? Rowdies are never revolutionary, they are always reac' tionary. It is among the young that the greatest conformists and Philistines are found, e.g., the hippies with their group beards and group protests. Demonstrators at American universities care as little about education as football fans who smash up subway stations in England care about soccer. All belong to the same family of goofy hoodlums-- with a sprinkling of clever rogues among them. What are your working methods? Quite banal. Thirty years ago I used to write in bed, dipping my pen into a bedside inkwell, or else I would compose mentally at any time of the day or night. I would fall asleep when the sparrows woke up. Nowadays I write my stuff on index cards, in pencil, at a lectern, in the forenoon; but I still tend to do a lot of work in my head during long walks in the country on dull days when butterflies do not interfere. Here is a disappointed lepidopterist's ditty: It's a long climb Up the rock face At the wrong time To the right place. Do you keep a journal or seek documentary reminders? I am an ardent memoirist with a rotten memory; a drowsy king's absentminded remembrancer. With absolute lucidity I recall landscapes, gestures, intonations, a million sensuous details, but names and numbers topple into oblivion with absurd abandon like little blind men in file from a pier.

Last-modified: Sat, 25 Jul 1998 20:44:07 GMT
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